Rishi Sunak Could Learn a LOT from Reagan '84
Walter Mondale is not a name you hear every day. Mondale was the Democrat candidate for the 1984 election, having previously served as Vice President under Jimmy Carter. The ‘84 Presidential election was of course won by Ronald Reagan. Not only that, Reagan won 49 of the 51 states in one of the most one-sided elections in modern democratic history; thus consigning Walter Mondale to the world of pub quiz trivia.
There are plenty of parallels between the challenges Reagan overcame and what Rishi Sunak faces. Sunak will enter the next election as the incumbent. He will have to unite one a diverse electorate and vanquish a highly competent opposition leader. Just as with 40 years ago, his country’s interests are threatened by Russia and China, leaving him with little option but to re-arm. Most pertinently, Reagan also inherited an economy that was losing market confidence thanks to runaway inflation and yawning budget deficits.
All this makes Reagan a better role model for Sunak than Thatcher. His victory was more decisive and his message was more unifying. He faced a higher calibre opponent in the affable and professional Mondale than Thatcher did from Kinnock or Foot. If the new PM wants to stop the Tory suicide pact, he needs to learn from Reagan’s landslide:
“Dance with the one that brung ya.” As Johnson discovered, it is much easier to lose your existing voter cohorts than it is to win over new ones. Worse still, if you betray those voters, they may never come back. Sunak really needs to reconnect with all those 2019 Tory voters, before it is too late. The party’s betrayal over mass migration and Sunak’s refusal to commit to hard numbers and deadlines is electoral suicide, handing the initiative (and voters) to Keir Starmer. His tin-eared planning reforms and insouciance on cost of living (all hot button issues) are sending once loyal voters running. Sunak could learn a lot from Cummings and his laser-like focus on Tory focus groups that swept up the red wall and steamrolled through Hartlepool. As soon as Carrie gave Dom and “the Brexit boys” the boot, the voters left too. He could also give find innovative ways to give Tory members a say on policy. It’s high time the party learnt from the corporate sector (and Toby Young’s Free Speech Union) on digital engagement.
"Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" was one of Reagan’s most famous commandments. There is a virtuous spiral here, because if a leader can win their grass-roots, they become almost irremovable. That level of impunity means they can tolerate dissent and difference with a degree of magnanimity. A leader who holds the grass-roots and avoids personal battles will avoid the civil war that blighted the Major years and condemned the party to a decade in the wilderness.
You can’t go halves on Reaganomics. As Liz Truss discovered, tax cuts are not enough. Sustainable growth requires the whole gamut of supply side reforms: tax reductions, economic deregulation and government spending cuts. The latter two will be tough, as it means squaring off to well-funded vested interest groups. Yet Reagan showed that, with steely determination, it can be done. He even managed to slash the number on disability and sickness rolls – a number that has exploded in the UK after Covid. It is imperative we get these 5.3m back to work. Not least because sitting at home claiming benefits is only making these people sicker and unhappier.
Inflation must come down. As political surveys have shown, cost of living is a deal breaker. Voters have always reviled inflation. Reagan got it down from 12.5% to 4.4%. Sunak has to do at least that. The Bank’s inflation mandate needs tightening right away, its Governor has to go and a credible replacement found. Further, you cannot spend your way out of an inflationary crisis. Supply side reforms must happen, and that must include the public sector. There can be no excuses.
Restore National Confidence. Reagan too faced his own set of culture wars across a divided nation. What he did was to restore a uniting sense of national pride and identity. Kemi Badenoch has made the case brilliantly for standing standing against the insidiousness of cancel culture, the iniquity of woke-ism and she sheer waste of EDI. We now need to follow through, with concrete proposals that replace Wokery and cancel culture with British pride and British identity. It’s not enough to protect statues. Let’s build more!
An assertive and self-interested foreign policy. Reagan approached foreign policy with a polite smile and an iron will. He escalated the Cold War, and halted handouts to nations who never backed the US in return. At the same time, he was always polite – avoiding Macron-esque tantrums and personal attacks. Reagan’s message was brutally consistent: ‘If it is not in the interests of the American people, it’s a no. It’s nothing personal.’ It is hard to remember a time when a British Prime Minister did not turn up to an international jamboree eager to give away concessions and aid, while expecting nothing back. Yet this approach has never won any votes. Sadly Sunak’s performance at COP27 and the G20 suggest more of the same. He did not seem to be standing up for British people and interests. There is no escaping the fact that for Sunak to survive, he will have to confront powerful international forces to fix the Northern Ireland protocol, the Channel Migrants shambles, and to ensure we do not martyr ourselves for net Zero while no-one else lifts a finger. The only way to take these on is with that steely Reagan smile: What’s in it for us? Because if it is not in the interests of the British People, it’s a no.
Be disgusted by Socialism. It has become fashionable to brand oneself a socialist or neo-Marxist, and to embrace completely failed ideas like rent controls and nationalisations. Yet today’s leaders seem happy to indulge these people as well-intended idealists. Reagan saw them for what they were: ‘Evil.’ Reagan reclaimed the moral high ground for the right, denouncing socialism as morally repugnant. Let’s not forget over a hundred million people died in the last century at the hands of socialists. Billions more were robbed, lied to, spied on, tortured, repressed and starved. The left’s most recent posterboy was Venezuela, which has played out with brutal predictability. Socialism is evil. It is disgusting. It is immoral. So why not say so, Rishi?
Even a generation later, the 40th President is still one of the most admired. His legacy was to restore national confidence, personal prosperity, and to face down the USSR. If Rishi Sunak can achieve half of that, he might just pull it back.